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News crew turns rescuer

Los Angeles photographer/reporter Aaron Fitzgerald became part of the story last week when he rescued his colleagues from a fiery crash.

Fitzgerald, covering Oscar activities from a helicopter hovering above the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, rescued a pilot and a cameraman from another news helicopter that crashed at a nearby airport.

"It was a really traumatic thing to see, especially because these guys are our friends," says Fitzgerald.

Pilot Kris Kelley, an employee of leasing company Helinet, was flying KTTV-TV Los Angeles' SkyFox2 with kttv photographer Phil Arno above the Shrine when she reported a problem with the hydraulic system. Fitzgerald, a KCBS-TV Los Angeles employee, and KCAL-TV Los Angeles pilot Larry Welk were in kcal's helicopter doing freelance work for Entertainment Tonight.

Welk and Fitzgerald escorted Kelley and Arno about 10 air miles back to their home base at Van Nuys Airport, where the helicopter crashed.

Welk landed nearby, dropping off Fitzgerald, who dodged burning jet fuel to help Kelley to safety. Then Welk took the kcal chopper back up in the air to shine light on the fiery scene, so that Fitzgerald could find and rescue Arno from where he was pinned under rubble in the dark.

Fitzgerald says he and Welk did what anyone in the close-knit broadcast helicopter community would have done.

Jeff Wald, news director of KTLA-TV Los Angeles, whose news helicopter also followed to the airport, concurs that the camaraderie among news crews in the sky is particularly evident. Wald says he authorized his crew to also escort SkyFox2 to Van Nuys after hearing Kelley's report of trouble.

Ironically, by authorizing his news crew to leave the Oscar venue, Wald ended up winning the exclusive coverage of the crash, a story covered widely on local evening news reports. He chose, though, to share the footage with the other stations in the market.

"Although it's a dog-eat-dog, competitive business, when something takes on emergency proportions, there is no hesitation to help," he says. "We weren't concerned about credit."

Coincidentally, Wald's crew was connected to the kttv crew on another level: The chopper that went down used to be ktla's news aircraft. About two years ago, Wald upgraded to a craft with more power. "It really hit us hard when we saw that tail number."

Both Kelley and Arno were in stable condition and recuperating from surgery at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, according to a hospital spokeswoman at press time. Each is expected to make a full recovery.